I read a fascinating book in 2003 titled The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. It is a sociologist’s look at how Christianity grew from a small collection of adherents to the dominant world religion in less than three centuries.
There are a number of fascinating lessons and insights in the book, but the main issue that caught my attention and imagination is that believers in those times did not live their faith privately. They did not withdraw to suburban churches and pursue private piety. They pushed into every part of their world taking their faith and making it relevant. They did not withdraw from civic involvement but pushed in further. They did not wait for government to fix their problems but provided solutions in the “secular” areas of health, abuse of women, care of abandoned infants and a host of other issues. Neither did they have a professional clergy to rely on to lead all “religious” activities.
These were believers who influenced the people and institutions around them. Their faith was publicly relevant and Christians were influentialnot because of political positions but because of their networks and active engagement in society. Stark says the power of the early church came from its ability to revitalize society like other religions of the day could not. As such, the Christian faith was not only attractive but relevant, and people responded to the gospel in remarkable numbers.
As the discussion continues on “Community Transformation,” it is helpful to look at the issues of how transformation takes place and who are the ones who lead it.
Why does society today have norms and values which are significantly different from the ones held ten years ago—especially values/norms in the moral and ethical realm? There were people behind these shifts in thinking. Who are they and how do they exercise this degree of influence? What are the issues that become prevalent topics of discussion in our society? Who pushes them to the fore? It is not the number of people in a society that shape the public values but the level of influence among those people. This explains why homosexuals in the U.S. make up just three percent of the population but exercise an inordinate amount of influence, changing the cultural view of alternative life styles. Gay rights activists are not legion in number but have become highly influential.
This article is designed to stimulate some thought on whom, humanly speaking, leads change and transformation?
Leverage—Where Is it Found?
Given finite resources and time, no matter what our particular focus as believers, we want to find those who lead and facilitate change and engage them. “Multiplication” in ministry has long been held as the best way to leverage faith into the broader world. Who are the ones who multiply? Who are those who know how to share their faith and bring it into their vocation and community effectively? Who not only speaks their convictions (integrity) but lives their convictions (conscience) in growing networks of acquaintances?
Difference between Leaders and Influentials
Traditionally we have viewed “leaders” in terms of positions they hold. We tend to equate leadership position with influence. Yet, we see all around us people who have pervasive influence on individuals and institutionsregardless of official position. If we broaden our definition of leader to include qualities of influence that are not tied to position, we will be able to refine our filter for working with leaders. In China, we see this most clearly through the networks of guanxi.
Potshots are taken regularly at the concept and outworking of guanxi in China, yet it can be argued that it represents most clearly the reality in which we live, regardless of our country or culture. There are those who influence the thinking and behavior of people at every strata of societyand those people, many times, are not in positions of formal leadership or decision-making. They are, what Jon Barry and Ed Keller, in their book The Influentials, call “influentials.”
These influentials generally hold several traits in common. These traits are instructive to us if we desire to affect and influence people and society—if we aspire to community transformation and to bring the gospel to the whole world.
Traits that “influentials” hold in common:
- Convictions: They know what they believe, what matters to them and why. They have priorities in light of these convictions.
- Activists: Influentials act on their convictions. This “activist” trait is what makes their beliefs “convictions” rather than simply beliefs. They follow through on what they hold to be true and right. In addition, they view change positively and thus work toward it.
- Articulate: They are able to articulate their convictions and draw people into conversation. They are users of technology largely because it connects them with other people in verbal and written ways. They desire to communicate with others on issues that are important to them.
- Widely Read: They keep current on books, articles and issues being discussed in society. They are generally not TV watchers but seek to be informed through reading and conversations. Influentials are motivated by a desire to be life-long learners. They are interesting conversationalists as a result.
- Widely Networked: Influentials have a wide network of people they know and interact with—more than the average person. They are part of several different groups/networks (formal and informal). They are not loners who stay at home.
Influentials at Every Level
The traditional view of influence is that it is top down, hierarchical. The person in charge holds greatest influence over everyone down the line. Apart from the observation that this is often not borne out in real life (especially in China), it also does not tell us who the influentials are in informal networks and the vast part of life that is not structured—that is, influentials among students, in neighborhoods, in social clubs and groups. This view of influence is seen in the diagram below.
Another way to look at who influences others is to look at the same pyramid horizontally. There are people in every social stratum who influence the others in that stratum—”influentials.” Thus, influence works horizontally within the strata rather than vertically between strata. Look at any group from CEOs to factory workers to primary school children and you will find a few people that the others gather around and listen to. The diagram below shows how this influence paradigm works out.
In this paradigm the “influentials” are the small percentage running up the side in every social/economic/grouping stratum. In this paradigm, influence does not run from top to bottom as much as across every grouping of people.
The lesson here is that there are “leaders” or “influentials” at each strata of society rather than just at the top. Keeping this in mind as we consider strategies for reaching and transforming 1.3 billion, as well as the global six billion, will allow us greater access to the societies we want to reach. In order to make the most of our resources and opportunities, I suggest that we learn to identify the “influentials” in our midst.
Obviously, there is truth in both models, and it is worthwhile to pursue both. This article is designed to help us think more broadly about the objectives that we pursue and evaluate the models we use in that pursuit.
There are two questions to ponder. First, who will we choose to focus on? Many people have the skills to share their faith and do so. Expanding this number continues to be a worthy goal. Influentials, however, are always expanding their sphere of contacts and influence, can speak relevantly to a wide number of people, seek out new ways of doing things and act consistently on their convictionsas they share their faith. These are people who actively engage the world and seek to change it. Much has been said over the years about F.A.T. people: faithful, available, teachable. Influentials are this and more. Working with influentials becomes a priority if changing the world (or neighborhood, city, people group) for Christ is my objective.
The second question to consider is whether or not we are influentials. Influentials hang out with other influentials and are influenced by them. Before developing a strategy to reach the influentials in whatever our sphere of ministry, it might be helpful to consider the list of “influential” traits. Where does personal development need to take place in my life in order to become a more influential person? What about our colleagues and those we are responsible forare they influentials? Can they become so? It is not an issue of position, but of the traits one develops and holds.
As believers, we are called to not only “reach” this world but to shape it as well. From the cultural mandate in Genesis, through Jesus’ life and ministry, the Great Commission, and the prophecies in Isaiah and Revelation, God’s children are called to be part of the world, to engage it and to shape it in the ways of God.
As Rodney Stark says, ” movements grow much faster when they spread through preexisting social networks.”
Influentials are widely networked. Stark goes on to build a case for the fact that those who are well informed will adopt new ideas more quickly than others. Influentials are widely read and well informed. In The Rise of Christianity, we see that Christian values were ” translated into norms of social service and community solidarity.” Influentials have convictions and act on them.
The early church, as a model, shows how the gospel can spread through influentials in action. As we look to presenting the gospel relevantly and effectively to 1.3 billion people, to seeing cities reached and increasingly reflecting Godly culture, to seeing China reached and transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, the issue of “influentials” looms large.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung.